Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The poverty of ideas

The problem with Toynbeeite ideas about child poverty is that they fail the 'common sense test'. Poverty, in the eyes of most people is an absolute term. People living on a dollar a day; not having a home; being unable to buy food. Put poverty into these terms and people can understand it. "It is appalling," they would say, "that in modern Britain, children have to go to bed hungry."
But that isn't what the statistics on child poverty demonstrate, or even are meant to demonstrate. Poverty, whether child or adult, is measured relatively, so that people earning less than 60% of the average incoke are considered to be in poverty. Given the reality of a market economy, with all the uncertainty and 'unfairness' that it entails, it is never going to be possible to eradicate this unevenness. Truly the poor really are always with us.
But why should it matter how poor people are compared to others. I'm a city lawyer. Compared to my friends who are bankers I'm practically destitute. Am I living in poverty? Of course I'm bloody not, that's a fatuous suggestion. So why should it be different for society as a whole?
The problem is the confluence of the terminology between destitution and differentiation. Everyone agrees that no-one should be allowed to starve, or live in destitution. I'm not sure that everyone would agree, however, that no-one should be allowed to earn less than 60% of the average.

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